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  • Writer's pictureSumbella

Teaching Large Groups & Education




First, China. 2007. 


It was one of my first teaching experiences, on a teaching visit to rural Southern China in the peak of summer. I was shocked to be given large classes of around 50-90 (!) students. 


Second, Pakistan. 2023. 


This summer, on a visit to the schools in Norther Pakistan, Chitral (see header photo), I saw classes with other 40 students in some of them. No tables. Just solo seats with a little fold out bit enough to place a notebook. 


Today: Cairo, Egypt. 


Fast forward to today’s training in Cairo city, where a common question kept surfacing: 

"With over 35, sometimes 40 students per class - how can we make teaching engaging, and not lose anyone’s attention in these scenarios? Especially when we can’t move the desks either - they’re fixed down and it would take too much time." 


The fact these three scenarios across different countries have a common issue of massive classes yet the same problem spans from 2007 to 2023 may take me on a spiral discussion about education in general. 


But we'll save that for another time. 


Let’s stick to the things I shared with these teachers:


1: Mindset - chin up, Sunny. 


I was not happy about my unexpected summer class size (one of them had about 90 in it!) in China when I taught there. But it wasn’t helpful to complain (even though I wasted energy doing so). The things I ended up learning to do in that experience in 2008 are still things I do when working with large groups even now. 


So firstly, acknowledging that this is a structure that is evidently not going to change any time soon, it’s better to face it, no complaints, and get creative despite the constraints. 


2: Variables - what can you change? 


Speaking of constraints - they are a friend of creativity. 


If you can’t move the desks, or the students, list out what you can move or leverage. For example:


Content. 


The walls become very useful for sticking things around. 


I used to stick things under chairs or under the desks for added surprise. It’s fun to help get students to be ‘elected’ at random to take a role in an activity in their area of the room. There’s a moment of delight, and it’s fun to see a whole crowd trying to look under their seats!


Another one:


Digital.  


This is another space-defying leverage you have today where most students have smart phones. Today we did a Menti.com, created on the spot to show how quickly we could brainstorm a topic getting everyone to contribute in a controlled manner. 


For me, the most compelling for these massive class scenarios, which I certainly didn’t have in rural China, is the hybrid / digital combo: using phones and digital to manage large groups and get everyone involved. 


3: What is the 'why'? 


In any group - even in a team as small as two (even one!), sharing the deeper ‘why’ behind the purpose of your class or subject helps give students the motivation to stay the course with you.


Your students need to know what their purpose is in this, and what’s at risk if they don’t join in.


Don’t take it for granted that all 40 students ‘just know’ why they’re there.

 

Pep talks are important. 


As Nietzsche said: “One who has a why can bear almost any how”.


4: Training - on crowd control (yourself, and them). 


Someone early on in my career said teaching is "just about crowd control". 


They were frustrated, and there’s (obviously) more to it, but crowd control techniques are a must-learn for these large group scenarios. 


I also now feel crowd control is about being a good facilitator. 


There is so much to this, but a vital one to start with ASAP is training students to respond to calls for attention.


Spending time at the beginning of the year training on these - e.g. ‘pens down, hands up' / ‘123, eyes on me’ etc. becomes so beneficial for large groups. 


Other methods like coloured straws (red, green, amber) for large groups to wave at you and show whether they have understood (green), or still have a doubt (red), or feel ok (amber), can be helpful too. 


Along with this, I also explain that when they see me seeking attention from the group, it’s because we need to change course or shift gears to make sure we meet our goals. So if they could help me with that, it would be awesome. (Also connects back to the why). And I notice when I do this, it creates allies and ambassadors in several participants, who really do help to grab everyone back on board when needed. 


Summary (this article in 30 seconds):


Large group. Yikes. Crowd control. Needed. Focus:


1) You got this.


2) Change what you can. 


Work around what you can't. 


Leverage devices and live digital hybrid activities. 


3) Share the bigger why. A strong sense of direction helps keep them 'with you'.


4) Train: Make sure you have shown everyone how to get on board. Hands up, call backs etc. Invest time into doing this. 


5) Create ambassadors: let them know what the call for attention really means (e.g. A change in gears or direction to meet the goal). 


There’s so much to each of these - but I’m just jotting down the ones we got going with today, and immortalising it here as an article for future reference. 


Now, I’d love to know: 


Do you teach large classes? What might you add here? 


Still reading? 


Here are some photos:


A Summer School in Guiping, China, 2007: 





A Private School in Northern Pakistan, 2023: 





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